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3D Printing to Potentially Replace Animal Testing

What’s the most futuristic thing you can imagine? A world where we mine asteroids for gold? Or one when everyone gets their own personalised jetpack? Well, how about a world where we can literally print human body parts from scratch, bringing them to functional life with nothing more hi-tech than a printer?

It sounds like the plot of a complex Sci-Fi movie, one set in the far flung recesses of the future. But printing organs is no scriptwriter’s idle dream; it’s already happening. As we speak, scientists across the world are creating a semblance of human and animal life in laboratories – and the impact of all this could be incredible.

A More Ethical Future

Alan Faulkner-Jones may be the geek with the weirdest job in the world. For a few years now, he and his colleagues have been working on a system known as a ‘human on a chip’. Although it might bring to mind images of processed potato wedges and greasy seaside holidays, the actual concept is the sort that will leave even the hardiest lover of science fiction bewildered. Using 3D printing technology, Alan’s team print microscopic versions of each major human organ and assemble them together to form a tiny ‘human’. This non-living collection of cell tissue will potentially function in the lab for weeks on end – but most importantly, it will also react to drugs in the exact same way as a human would.

Video of Alan Faulkner-Jones explaining concept:

With his kindly eyes and out-of-control beard, Faulkner-Jones may not seem like a plausible candidate for ‘modern Frankenstein’, but if anything he’s even-more committed to his cause than his fictional counterpart. However, unlike the mad doctor who defied the ethics of his day to play God, Alan is instead hoping to make our society more ethical. At the 3D Printshow in London a couple of weeks ago, he expanded on this idea:

"It lends itself strongly to replace animal testing," website Dezeen quoted him as saying, "If it gets to be as accurate as it should be, there would be no need to test on animals."

Thanks to the ‘human on a chip’ system, the potential exists for drug and cosmetics companies to skip animal and human testing and simply test-drive their products on unthinking, unfeeling tissue. The results would likely be more-accurate than animal testing could ever be, with the added bonus that we wouldn’t be knowingly harming sentient beings in our quest for ever-shinier hair. As Faulkner-Jones noted, it could be “a major breakthrough.

Printed Fries With That?

But Faulkner-Jones and his team are far from alone in this newly-burgeoning field. In California, medical research company Organvo have just unveiled a micro human liver capable of surviving for 40 days in the lab – more than enough time to run any number of tests on it. Meanwhile, scientists in the Netherlands recently cooked and ate the world’s first lab-grown burger. Again, the potential for animal welfare here is huge: it’s possible that battery farms and animals reared for slaughter will soon belong to the distant past; replaced instead with ordinary home printers that are capable of creating anything from a side of beef to a deliciously edible liver.

One thing’s for certain though: however likely or otherwise this future may be it’s still a little way off. Back at the London’s 3D Printshow, Faulkner-Jones estimates that it’ll be at least another 5 years before his system is capable of delivering a perfect ‘human on a chip’ for drug companies to experiment with. The faux-burger producers in the Netherlands, meanwhile, hesitate to put a time frame to the mass-production of artificial meat. In short, we’re still not yet there. But right now our society may be teetering on the edge of a miracle, and it’s going to be men like the geeky, soft-spoken Alan who gently prod us over the precipice.

About the author:

Oliver Randall has a keen interest in biotech, 3D printing and singularity, as well as everyday gadgetry. He’s currently penning for PrinterInks where he often writes about all things tech.

by Oliver Randall
on 11/22/2013

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